It’s now been nearly four years since the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown, which seems like more than enough time and distance for the Washington Nationals to put it squarely in the past. Yet that decision is one that continues to hang over the franchise.
Had the Nats won a World Series in 2012 or in any of the past three seasons, the Strasburg shutdown might never be mentioned again. And general manager Mike Rizzo would probably have been redeemed by putting the future first and yielding the benefits down the line. At the time, shelving Strasburg for the final month and the postseason may have been a precaution. But it was also a presumption. The underlying belief seemed to be that the Nationals were building a perennial contender, assembling a young core of talent that free agents would want to join and continually compete for World Series championships.
Despite being viewed as favorites during each of the past three seasons, however, Washington has not been able to follow through on those great expectations. The 2012 team may have even been a cautionary lesson. Take advantage of the opportunity when it’s presented. Don’t assume there will be other ones. Players can get injured. They can perform below standards. Other teams can emerge as challengers. Not to mention that we’re talking about sports. The best team doesn’t always win. Nothing is guaranteed.
For many Nats fans and observers, this week’s news that the team was putting Strasburg on the 15-day disabled list with a sore elbow had to cause some twinge of memories from the 2012 shutdown. Four years ago, Washington had a 6.5-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. The team also had the best record in MLB at 86-53, with the Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers close behind.
This season, the Nats are ahead of the Miami Marlins by eight games. But their 73-52 record isn’t the best in baseball. Once again, the Rangers are right behind them. The surging Dodgers are gaining on them, as well. However, the Chicago Cubs have the top mark at 80-45 and have been the heavy World Series favorites all season. Washington wasn’t even viewed as a division favorite going into the spring. The New York Mets, coming off a NL pennant, were the new darlings of the NL East. Maybe even the up-and-coming Marlins could overtake a team that was still tremendously talented, but seemed as if they’d miss that fleeting championship window.
Though the Nationals were under the radar, their success couldn’t escape detection for too long. For a while, the story could be “What’s wrong with the Mets?” as media and fans tried to figure out why last season’s World Series runner-up wasn’t meeting the 2015 standard. But as injuries mounted and the team struggled, attention soon turned back to the Nats, compelling observers to realize that a team with reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper and a deep rotation led by Max Scherzer and Strasburg, along with a veteran manager who knew what he was doing, shouldn’t have been overlooked.
Yet is this season now threatening to be derailed by Strasburg sitting down, as 2012 was? While the dates on the calendar and the player involved naturally invite comparisons, the situations are quite different — as should be expected with the passage of four years.
For one thing, Strasburg did not have the question of his innings limit hanging over him throughout the season. Four years ago, Rizzo and then-manager Davey Johnson dismissed such questions because they didn’t figure to be an issue. The Nats weren’t expected to contend, so if Strasburg was shut down early in his first full season following Tommy John surgery, so what? But Washington took a big jump in its plan to build a contender and were ready a year earlier than expected. The Nationals suddenly being in a position to win their division, advance in the postseason and possibly win a World Series changed expectations — and thus the view of Strasburg — considerably.
Shutting Strasburg down looked questionable after he was dominant in August, compiling a 2.79 ERA and 4-1 record in five starts with 32 strikeouts in 29 innings. But as that 160-inning mark approached (one which Rizzo refused to publicly confirm was the hard number the Nats were eyeing for Strasburg), the questions and scrutiny intensified. And a pitcher who preferred to avoid attention didn’t respond well to it. In two of his last three starts, Strasburg allowed five runs and couldn’t pitch past the fifth inning. His final effort in which he only lasted three innings — allowing five runs, six hits, three walks and two home runs — confirmed the team’s decision to follow through on its shutdown plans.
Maybe Strasburg was wearing down under the strain of extending his repaired arm as far as it should go in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Had he ended up getting injured, that would have provided a definitive answer and the Nationals would have been roundly criticized for pushing their young star so hard. But when discussing the decision with the media, Davey Johnson indicated that Strasburg wasn’t handling the situation well mentally. The attention and the questions were knocking him off his game, clearly affecting him on the mound. Johnson seemed to be blaming the media, but the underlying implication also seemed to be that Strasburg couldn’t handle the pressure.
Whether fairly or not, Strasburg’s mental toughness has been questioned ever since, especially when it comes to his frequent trips to the disabled list. The potential seriousness of his injuries (especially the oblique strains), in addition to the possibility that he could be more prone to serious arm issues after having Tommy John surgery, should quiet any whispers down. But Strasburg has also created the impression that he won’t pitch unless he’s feeling perfect, with none of the aches, pains and difficulties that develop over the course of 30-plus starts and a 162-game season. Other pitchers who know the difference between being sore and injured might try to tough it out, for better or for worse. Is that a line Strasburg just isn’t willing to cross?
This is why the Nationals putting Strasburg on the DL now, giving him two to four weeks to get himself right in time for the postseason, is the right decision. Why not eliminate that question if it’s at all possible? That might be the true precaution the Nats are taking here. If Strasburg doesn’t think he’s feeling right, let him get healthy physically — and mentally — in order to give this team its best chance at succeeding in a postseason during which the Cubs might be the only obstacle to a World Series. With an eight-game lead, the Nats and manager Dusty Baker have the opportunity to give players the proper rest and line up his rotation ideally for the playoffs.
The most important thing to consider is that the 2016 Nationals are not the 2012 edition of the team. Those who are still around — like Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez, along with Jayson Werth — have four years of experience and the memories of 2012 to guide them. Scherzer is a veteran presence and No. 1 starter who thrives on pressure. The rotation itself is deeper now and can cover Strasburg’s absence, especially when he’s not pitching well as has been the case during his past three starts, during which he’s allowed a combined 19 runs and 24 hits in 11.2 innings.
Strasburg’s 2012 shutdown will haunt him and the Nationals until the right-hander excels during the postseason and the team wins a World Series. But they’re not expected to this year, anyway. Let the Cubs take all the pressure. The Nationals seem to be far more comfortable with the spotlight elsewhere. If this is a sequel to 2012, the follow-up has a good chance of being better than the original.